Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977)

"It’s philosophical. It fits together pieces of the universe. You come out of that movie changed. It is one of the greatest movie experiences I’ve ever had.”
Ray Bradbury (Variety, 2008)

Close encounter of the first kind: Sighting of a UFO
Close encounter of the second kind: Physical evidence 
Close encounter of the third kind: Contact

As a child that grew up in the 1950s with a television set, Steven Spielberg was witness to continual reports of UFO sightings and science fiction films that all fed his vision for one of the most personal films of his career. Although his previous picture, Jaws (1975) certainly displays his talent as a director, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) demonstrates his willingness to project aspects of his own life onto the screen and it remains one of the only films in his career that he wrote as well as directed. With a great creative freedom, his film distinguished itself from the vast majority of sci-fi pictures in the past that featured extra terrestrials - the aliens in Close Encounters aren't here to hurt us, they're not the "bad guys", and instead of humanity having to band together in order to defeat the invaders, they have to unite in order to welcome them to Earth. From the moment that his father woke him up in the night to see a meteor shower, Steven Spielberg's sense of wonder and interest in the skies was 'inborn and uncrushable' (Haskell, 2017: 71) - this interest was soon to coincide with his love of filmmaking.

A remake of an amateur picture he made in his youth called Firelight (1964), Close Encounters of the Third Kind has three main story threads. The first concerns scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and translator/cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) as they investigate a series of strange occurrences and disappearances across the globe, their journey eventually leads them to the discovery of a set of map coordinates that pinpoints the location of what they believe to be the landing site of an extra terrestrial ship. Government officials then invent a false environmental scare in the area in order to clear out the civilians. Meanwhile, we meet Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a line worker who, one night is blinded by the light of an overhead UFO. He subsequently becomes obsessed with the encounter and battles with the subliminal messages that seem to be taking over his mind, believing that a mountain shape vision "means something", until his erratic behaviour forces his family to leave him. In Indiana, single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) also have a similar experience, leaving the two with with a musical 5-note tone in their own minds - one night, the young boy is abducted by the aliens. Soon after, Roy and Gillian both see a news report on the TV, and realise the mountain vision in their head is that of Devil's Tower in Wyoming, ignoring the false government warnings of a toxic nerve gas in that area, they drive to the site and find that they are not the only ones that have been compelled to go to visit. After interrogation, they escape the government officials who have taken over the area and climb to one side of Devil's Tower to watch the arrival. After a musical exchange between the humans and the spaceship using the 5 tones, the mothership opens up, releasing all the unharmed humans who have gone missing, including Barry. After Roy accepts Lacome's offer of joining the aliens, one of them gives Claude a sign language interpretation of 5 note musical tone, before smiling and returning to space.

'An alien cut off from his tribe'

Regardless of the critical success or public adoration that Spielberg's pictures have attained, the psyche of the director is 'stamped by this childhood image of him as an outsider' (Friedman, 2000: xi). As Paul Bullock notes in his essay on the topic, Spielberg, Loneliness, and the Longing to Belong, such a perspective is grounded in two important aspects of his upbringing. Both his Jewish faith and his constant displacing of home led to a great sense of isolation in his younger years, the theme of which can still be found in his work today. Spielberg's religion was perhaps the single biggest barrier he faced when trying to fit in with those he shared a street or classroom with: "I was brought up in a gentile neighbourhood where there were no Jews in my school, I just felt like I was on the outside, like I didn't belong to anything" (Quoted in Fensch, 1995: 54). Even besides the anti-semitism he faced, he perhaps found it difficult to make friends simply because he didn't have the time to get to know anyone at school or in his neighbourhood before having to leave his town: "Just as I'd been accustomed to a best friend, the 'for sale' sign would dig into the front lawn, this happened four major times in my life" (Quoted in McBride, 2010: 47). Even in his own home, given that his fathers' work commitments forced him away from the house for days on end - the boy was always sharing his home with female siblings and his mother. Upon getting his first TV job on Night Gallery (1969), he found himself to be the youngest one on the set by far, and although the actors had faith in him - the 75 experienced crew members looked upon the young man who was barely out of his teens with great hostility. Upon finding a group of guys with whom he 'belonged', he was still somewhat the odd one out - the person who was, amongst the Movie Brats the only one determined to keep his brain 'booze and drug free' (Haskell, 2017:2). 

This is why alot of his pictures are about outsiders. Whether it's Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) in The Terminal (2004), a soft spoken, kindhearted foreigner in a cynical environment, or Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in The Post (2017), a timid female in a patriarchal dominated workplace - Spielberg  often emphasises the isolation of these lonely people at first in order to undo this later on as he assimilates them into the lives of others. For the select few in the story who are compelled to seek out the mothership in Close Encounters, their journey is one that they must make on their own, they're ostracised by those who don't believe in the phenomenon and looked down upon as crazy. Roy is already the odd one out in his family from the start, long before his decent into madness causes his family to leave for good. He's 'out of his element in white-bread America... an alien cut off from his tribe' (Haskell, 2017: 77) with seemingly little in common with his kids or wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). Unable to look to Ronnie for re-assurance who dismisses his experience, they barely even meet each others eye-lines when speaking to one another in their first scene together, since Roy is sat down staring at his train set whilst his wife is stood up behind him. In a shot that lasts around 1min 10sec, Spielberg uses the blocking of Ronnie to express their emotional distance, rather than cutting between the two individuals, he uses the oner to show her repeatedly walking away from her husband into the background of the frame, with the cluttered decor of the house serving to increase this sense of chaos that they live in. When Roy's family finally does leave him, he stares forlornly out of the window at the other 'normal' families in the neighbourhood and it's hard not to think of Spielberg's recollections of Christmas as a child. Whilst the other, gentile families would decorate their homes in lights, Spielberg's house was the odd one out, the "black hole of Crystal Terrace" (Quoted in McBride, 2007: 37). 

Profile shots are fairly rare and consequently create a sense of disconnect and secrecy.
Here Spielberg uses a profile of Laughlin and Lacome as they speak French to one
another along with a shallow focus to exacerbate Roy's isolation and confusion. 

To express these feelings of loneliness, Spielberg turned to his 'alter ego' (Cohen, 2010: 44), Richard Dreyfuss. To the director, he represented the average American, someone whom the audience could easily relate themselves to, not least the director himself. In all three of the pictures that the two have collaborated on, he's said that he always felt he was similar to the character that Dreyfuss was playing, stating that: "If I want to put myself in one of my own movies I go to Richard". After considering others such as Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen and Jack Nicholson it was also decided that there needed to be a young, boyish personality to the protagonist. Unlike, perhaps Jim (Christian Bale) in Empire of the Sun (1987) or Albert (Jeremy Irvine) in War Horse (2011)who are kids caught in predicaments that force them to act wise beyond their years, Roy Neary is the opposite: an adult characterised by a whimsical, kid-like wonder at the world. He's dissatisfied with the stifling constraints of the traditional nuclear family and is easily distracted from his adult responsibilities by childish things such as his train set. One might see Roy's actions throughout the film as irresponsible, but the director has acknowledged that he had alot of what he perceived to be naiveté in his early career, which may explain Roy's childish yearnings. He justified this in a 1982 interview with George Negus: "You don’t want to lose the child in you" he said "because that's what keeps a smile on your face. I don’t quite know what it would be like to become an adult".

"He's [Dreyfuss] as close an actor to Spencer Stacy as any actor that exists today, I think he represents the underdog in all of us." - Steven Spielberg (Quoted in Jackson, 2007: 25)

Roy finds a soulmate of sorts in Gillian, as the only one that understands what Roy is going through, she sympathises with his desire to find out more about the phenomenon, encouraging him to climb down to the landing bay of the spaceship when the two are gazing at it from a distance. After being abandoned by his family and left alone, he is the one person chosen by the extra-terrestrials to join them in space. J.J Abrams has stated that as a child, Spielberg was compelled to make films as a means of escape, it was his way of battling with "scary whispers" - that sense of doubt that would crop up when he wasn't making amateur productions, it's as if the one sanctuary from the bullying and alienation in his youth were the moments when he was looking through the lens of an 8mm camera. As Roy is being led away onto the mothership, it really is the first moment in the film where you get the sense that he has finally found a place where he truly belongs, much like the enthusiastic young director when ever he was on his film set.

"The desire to understand, to belong, is what fuels Close Encounters of the Third Kind... this is a film of disconnect and tragedy, about characters who feel lost in the world, unable to find a place for themselves within it." (Bullock, 2016)

Whilst close to his heart, Spielberg has said that Close Encounters is also in some ways, a picture that he can look back on and see how much he has changed since 1977. Quite famously he's declared that had he made the picture today he'd never have the main character abandon his wife and kids, but in an interview with Barry Norman in 1990 he accepted that films are a product of their time: "Every year we change, the movies are a reflection of who you happen to be on the particular month that film was released, or the year that the film took to write". Close Encounters was made before he had a family himself, and although he's using Roy Neary as an extension of his own thoughts at the time, he may have also been projecting his own memories of his absent father onto the screen as he depicts the breakdown of a family in stark detail. As a child of divorce, suburban family life is portrayed as cramped and stifling from the very first scene in the Neary household as Spielberg establishes that the fracturing of the family is already just around the corner. Although he was 19 when his parents got divorced, the marriage was apparently 'troubled long before' (Wasser, 2010: 24), and we can see straight away, when Roy bickers with his kids and wife over what to do for their son's birthday, that the family is already split.

No art without sacrifice 

Not only does Close Encounters represent Spielberg's experiences of feeling like an outcast when he was a child, but it is also a thoughtful rumination on what it takes to be an artist. The journey that a director takes, from when their idea for a project is initially conceived to when the film is finally completed is gruelling and arduous. Spielberg's experience making his previous film, Jaws (1975) was, according to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb 'analogous to NASA trying trying to land men on the moon' (1975, 43). A physically draining shoot for all concerned, the young director was working on only his second feature, still wanting to prove himself. A malfunctioning shark, seasick actors and the aggravation that stemmed out of trying to film a movie on water led to a picture that although monumentally successful, went over-budget and over schedule. In trying to make his vision a reality, the stress of the shoot cost Spielberg a tremendous amount mentally, and he would revisit the Universal lot years later to reflect on the experience: “I would work through my own trauma, because it was traumatic. I would just sit in that boat alone for hours, just working through, and I would shake. My hands would shake” (2016). This is something that would also occur later on in Spielberg's career when making Schindler's List (1993), even if unlike Jaws, the shoot was a relatively straight forward one logistically, the horrific images he was filming at times simply became to much for him to bear.

To say that Spielberg was under pressure with Close Encounters would be an understatement, not only would he be trying to prove that the success of Jaws wasn't a fluke, but he was under the strain of trying to direct a film that had to save Columbia Pictures from bankruptcy. So what better character to use to project such pressures and past experiences from than his 'cinematic avatar' (Bullock, 2017) Richard Dreyfuss.

"Close Encounters was brought to the screen with the same unshakable sense of belief that compelled Roy Neary to seek out the mothership. Like Neary's, Spielberg's path to fulfilling his vision would not be an easy one."(Klastorin, 2017: 8)

Spielberg's doppelgänger is like a director, or any artist in that he has to sacrifice and persevere in order to achieve this dream that's taken over his mind. Unfulfilled in his life, Roy's vision and subsequent journey gives his life purpose and meaning; his odyssey begins as soon as he's blinded by the light of the UFO, and his eureka moment comes when he witnesses the news report of Devil's Tower on the TV. In the 2017 documentary Spielberg, the director recalls the time when he saw Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962), it was his own 'lightbulb moment' when he finally realised what his calling was in life: making films was something that he was going to achieve, or he was going "die trying". Roy's pursuit isn't an easy for him, from the moment he first witnesses a UFO, he is driven to mental and physical exhaustion trying find meaning to what he just saw as he tries his best to express the obsession that's taken hold of him. Roy is striving to find an answer, but is not able to fully reach it until after he's exhausted his creativity. 

Spielberg's diligent work ethic likewise sets him on the same journey, both him and Roy have an obsession to create, and keep creating until their vision is realised. Believing that a director's nemesis is laziness, Spielberg would work until dawn when making Close Encounters, 'putting in 20 hour days and only sleeping until the phone started ringing again' (Rowley, 1978: 24). This is still true 40 years later, since he's recently revealed that whilst making his latest picture, Ready Player One (2018), that he was directing on 5 hours sleep a night. Roy doesn't rest either, and it comes at a great personal cost to him. As explained, Spielberg's previous picture and subsequent ones were finished at the expense of his own sanity at times - his wife, Kate Capshaw was the one bedrock that kept him from breaking down on the set of Schindler's List, but as a director he had a creative passion - a drive to tell a story that needed to be told.

"I identified with this obsession. I was Neary in that movie. Something opens up his imagination to go for something that he thinks is going to provide him with some cathartic answer. He had to go through chaos to reach some clarity. He was an artist trying to plumb the depths of his imagination." - Steven Spielberg, in the documentary Spielberg (Lacy, 2017)

Much like the age old saying that no artist is ever satisfied with his work, it takes Roy several attempts to visually articulate his thoughts, building the Devil's Tower out of mash, shaving foam and clay, he's not satisfied that he's captured the vision which has taken hold of him, pacing around his home-made model muttering repeatedly that it's "not right". Similarly, Spielberg has said that, even in 2018 with all the success that his filmmaking career has bought him, that he always feels that has "something to prove" (Quoted in Freer, 2018: 70). Given that he has revisited the film and released a total of three different versions, Spielberg seems to have been similarly wrestling with his own creativity, saying: "There's a notion about films that I don't quite agree with, and that's the idea that when a film is finished you should let the paint dry and walk away and leave it alone".

This isn't to suggest that the final product of Close Encounters (or any picture) is down solely to the director, as Morton states: 'The cinematography, production design, editing, sound and music are all top notch... the product of a team of abundantly talented artists and craftspeople working at the absolute top of their game' (2007: 289). Nor is it to suggest that Close Encounters is the first, or only film to project this idea of artistic sacrifice onto the screen. The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948) for example springs to mind as a film that also shows how artists must physically and emotionally pay when pursuing their ambition. The young ballet dancer, Victoria (Moira Shearer) is torn between two passions - dance and love - and one can't be pursued at the same time as the other. But a description of the film that has cropped up in a 2009 interview with Martin Scorsese seems incredibly apt when talking about the crafting of a picture like Close Encounters too: 'It is a portrait of artistic sacrifice and compromise in the film-makers' own industry...of the obsession to create' (Rose, 2009).

Despite Spielberg's own negative aforementioned revisionist views on the ending of the picture, where Roy choses to leave his family back on Earth, it is (on a personal note) the only way that the film could have ended.  Close Encounters is a portrait of an individual who is driven to obsession by something that comes to mean more to him than anything else in his life, that no one else can comprehend nor truly appreciate. While Elliot stays back on Earth in E.T because his goal of saving the life of his best friend has been achieved, Roy's gradual descent into, some might say, madness, is something that can only be quashed by fulfilling his dream and making the journey to the stars. The extra terrestrials themselves chose Roy over all the other volunteers from the human ambassadors, there is little doubt that he was meant to be there at Devil's Tower, just as there is little doubt that Steven Spielberg was meant to spend his life crafting films. 

They can be our friends

In the original 1977 review for the film in the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote how the sci fi films of the 1950s fed on the wildest nightmares of the American people - out of the climate of a country that was fighting the Korean War, dealing with the communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and fretting over the prospect of nuclear armament - a favourite theme of movies was the invasion of earth by alien creatures who, 'nine times out of ten, were up to no good' (1977). By contrast, the the cosmic visitors in Close Encounters are benign and peaceful (for the most part!), willing to allow ambassadors from Earth to join them.

This fact makes this picture all the more unique within its genre, and something that struck a chord with both audiences and those involved in the film:

"We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. It wasn't just a sci-fi movie. I was that we are not only not alone, but that we have nothing to fear. Close Encounters was the first cultural iconic moment that said 'calm down, we're okay - they can be our friends'" - Richard Dreyfuss, in the documentary The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Bouzereau, 2001)

The prospect of an alien encounter with humans was obviously fascinating to Spielberg, but ultimately, despite his own personal interest in the subject that isn't the point of Close Encounters. As someone who was agnostic between the two beliefs, he wasn't trying to convert audiences into believing that extra-terrestrial life existed: "If you believe, it's science fact; if you don't believe, it's science fiction" he has said. Instead, he was making a hopeful statement on human nature, the film 'asks us to believe not in aliens, but each other' (Bullock, 2017), perhaps because of his aforementioned experiences of never truly feeling accepted himself, Close Encounters teaches us what co-operation can achieve. This is not to say that the film completely embraces the idea of harmony between humans, the post-Watergate feeling of authority distrust is still here, prevalent in the way that the government evacuates people from their homes under false pretences in order to cover up the expected arrival of aliens. Overall though, it's a far cry from several other American films at the time, for example I've written previously about how the pessimism of some films such as Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and Network (Lumet, 1976) released just one year before stemmed out of the cultural climate of the U.S as a result of events such as the Vietnam War. Close Encounters on the other hand is about a warmth and compassion. Friedman observes, that in conversations with Spielberg, 'tolerance and intolerance are the most common words to crop up' (2000: 235), and here he believes that people of all creeds can unify to welcome a group of unknowns to Earth.

This is part of the reason why John Williams' score is so important here, as it perfectly undercuts one of main themes of the film which is essential for this idea of human cooperation, and that's communication. The globetrotting investigations undertaken by Lacombe and Laughlin are often hindered due to language barriers; dividing the individuals present in the moment and restricting them from making progress in their pursuit. Roy even struggles to be heard in his own family, as the scenes in his house often require him to speak over the noise that his children are making.  In the last half hour however, we finally see both humans and aliens talking to one another harmoniously - through sign language, lights and most importantly, music.

"There's something about Spielberg's movies that requires the music to be a partner in the narrative, that it follows the story. The music of Close Encounters could be divided into two technical groups. One is a romantic area, where the notes are recognisable and have tonal harmony. The other is non-tonal, where there is no relationship from note to note. It's a kind of chaos. The film demanded both approaches." - John Williams in the documentary The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Bouzereau, 2001)

The one thing that unites everyone, even the aliens, are the iconic five notes. From the juxtaposition of the opening credits, which features no music - to the sweeping orchestral score that accompanies the end credits, John Williams is telling us that music is the one universal mode of communication. By the end, the language barrier is broken and two groups of beings who couldn't be more different are speaking as one.

Final thoughts 

As has been pointed out in this fantastic video essay by Kevin B LeeClose Encounters contains, more than any other of the director's films, what is called: 'The Spielberg Face'. A common trope throughout his body of work, it is a term used to describe the moments when characters within his films are staring expressively at something or someone, maybe even their own reflection, with wonder, fear or shock. Close Encounters is not just a film about friendly aliens, but 'cinematic spectacle itself' (Kolker, 2011: 274). Echoing his real-life job as a director, Truffaut conducts the encounter between the aliens and the humans. If Spielberg has described his job as something that requires him to "Put the audience inside the movie and to remove the distance between the audience and the experience", we as audience members are Roy and Barry - their amazement at what they are witnessing parallels our own sense of awe when watching this extraordinary film.

"The Spielberg close-up, quite often shows us a character dreaming, gazing, yearning, awestruck. Transforming the characters from the dissatisfactions of their social world." (Rybin, quoted in Morris, 2017: 159)

If Spielberg, now 71 is still as nervous when he starts a new scene as he was when directing Joan Crawford at age 21, Close Encounters teaches us all not to fear the unknown. He feels more rewarded when faced with a challenge that he's forced to overcome; turning up to his film set with a clear idea on how he's going to shoot the next scene doesn't get him out of his comfort zone - "The more I'm feeling confident and secure, the less I'm going to put out". The image of the young Barry Guiler opening the door of his house to a blinding orange light opens this blog post, and the reason for this is that it's the 'single shot that can be used to sum up his entire career' (Bullock, 2017). The young boy isn't fearing what may be lying on the outside, he's intrigued by it, and part of the optimism of Close Encounters lies in this endless thirst for knowledge that the characters, even the children have. Like these curious people, Steven Spielberg is restless and prolific, always looking for his next story to tell even if the prospect is still frightening to him. 

"I think every movie comes from every filmmakers life. Because every choice a filmmaker makes is informed by the collection of life experiences that led up to that moment" - Steven Spielberg (Quoted in Freer, 2018: 69)


For an indispensable trove of thoughtful and interesting insights into the career of Steven Spielberg, visit Paul Bullock's website: From Director Steven Spielberg
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